Provincialism in the air

In the wake of the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump, there is a distinct whiff of provincialism in the air. These developments have brought to mind an address I delivered to the UNC graduating class in December 2003 on the fragility of globalization. I wondered at the time if writing in the aftermath of 9/11 had made me too pessimistic about the role of the United States in a troubled world.

Now fourteen years later with the alarm bells again going off here and abroad, the old worry and doubts have returned. Is the rising tide of provincialism in the the UK and the US a sign of gobalization in trouble? Or is it merely a reflection of a loss of confidence and direction in two countries whose days of dominance are done? Perhaps we are not witnessing the end of the open global order but its transformation as new powers and players take a more prominent role. For Americans accustomed to thinking of their country as model and leader, the prospect of a diminished role in the world will be hard to understand and even harder to accept.

Excerpts from the 2003 address follow. (A full version can be found at Readers can judge for themselves how well the insights served up fourteen years ago apply to the current crisis unfolding in the Anglo-American world and how much we should worry.


Looking Beyond September 11”

(21 December 2003)

We live in somber times. September 11 continues to cast a dark shadow over the early years of the new century. Almost certainly that September morning of stunning destruction is now burned in the collective memory of the graduate’s generation. That day may well define a national watershed. Before, Americans were cavorting carefree with the jolly green giant of peace and economic prosperity. After, our lives seemed stalked by dark forces, the world less welcoming, our perplexities piling high. In the name of greater security we have bolstered government surveillance, raising the classic issues of how a free society safeguards itself without compromising its basic principles. We have launched military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that have turned into open-ended and problematic commitments. The war on terrorism promises like predecessor crusades against poverty and drugs to be long and dispiriting and perhaps inconclusive.

There is yet another worrisome consequence of 9-11 that I’d like you to think about. So strong a grip does that attack have on our national imagination and policy that it may obscure a broad, gradually building set of global problems. . . .

. . . In question is the air you breathe, the climate you live with, the microbes you absorb, the networks of commerce and confidence you depend on for a livelihood, even the responsibility you bear for needless suffering within the human family.

These difficult problems are made yet more difficult by the eroding sense of international community. On one side Americans have good reason to feel frustrated and chagrinned by post-9-11 developments and to ask: Why not withdraw from an ungrateful, unyielding, dangerous world? Might a more solitary America be a safer place? It might be less vulnerable to attack, less dependent on fickle friends, less likely to get entangled in distant quarrels, more secure in its homeland and its domestic liberties. This logic is seductive.

But following this logic would mark a major reversal. Over the last half century, U.S. vision, generosity, and leadership have done much to shape the global order. Our finger prints are everywhere. Washington promoted European integration at its fragile start as well as Japan’s recovery from crushing defeat. Major international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank exist as a result of U.S. initiative and support. The same can be said for the world-wide free trade system, the drive to elevate human rights, and the campaign to hold leaders responsible for what have become widely accepted norms on genocide and crimes against humanity. American leadership – consistent and collaborative – remains as critical today as it was earlier to the development of international community and order. How can it be otherwise for the world’s largest economy, the unquestionable master of military power, the most widely admired model for social mobility and technological innovation, and the fount of cultural trends that reach around the world?

No less serious than turning our back on the world is the world turning its back on us. We run the risk of losing our legitimacy as architect and keeper of global order. Poll after poll over the last several years reveals that vaulting U.S. national ambitions and talk of being either with us or against us has generated world-wide resentment, even among long-time allies. While we remain widely admired socially and economically, elites around the world are regarding our policies, even our national style with growing suspicion, even aversion.

So now we come to the heart of the matter: If my reading of the current situation is right, your generation stands at a turning point. The coming half century that will round out your lives has the potential for change no less great than that witnessed over the previous half century. It is critical that we not let our fixation with the war on terrorism obscure the significance of the choices that loom.

One course is to recognize that global abundance and peace is inextricably tied to the resolution of the global problems now before us. Inequality, disease, environmental stress, and grass-roots disaffection are an inextricable and unsettling part of a highly dynamic and highly productive global society. Whatever its flaws, that society has made extraordinary strides and brought great benefits to many people. Simply consider the resources now available to us (an annual world-wide output of $30 trillion) compared to fifty years ago when it was a tenth that figure. Imagine what those resources mean today in the lives of people in all lands – in their health and welfare. Think about the capacity that this amazing, unprecedented leap in global productivity gives us to deal with the very problems that confront us. Only by addressing these mounting problems can a new generation hope to extend the considerable achievements of the previous fifty years.

What is to be done? Sustaining hope in the notion of a better world, seeking understanding of the workings of that world, and looking for ordinary ways of acting within your means as voters, consumers, investors, and professionals come at once to mind. Of these elements, understanding strikes me as especially important. You cannot deal with something that you do not understand or want to understand. The starting point is the simple but profound realization that there is more than the U.S. perspective on any of our current problems. That basic insight orients us to the importance of the diverse perspectives prevailing among other peoples and a sensitivity to the power and persistence of different national and regional values molded by sometimes profoundly different histories. We are getting a crash course on this point in regard to Islam and the Middle East. But the challenge to understanding is much broader than one religion or one region. It arises almost anywhere we turn – from the seemingly familiar European Union (with its distinct notions of welfare capitalism) to China (with its deep attachment to strong, centralizing state power) to the indigenous communities in Central America (fighting for cultural survival). Other peoples’ insistence on their own particular set of values does not mean that we have to embrace a paralyzing moral relativism. We do have to recognize that that ignoring or dismissing their views foredooms any sustained, fruitful attack on global problems in the years ahead.

Your effort to understand, to act, and to preserve hope will not necessarily be crowned with success. But the other course of making no effort will surely bring a global unraveling. The possible consequences of that unraveling are not pleasant to contemplate: discord among states and peoples leading to rising cultural intolerance, flaring nationalist fervor and rivalry, deepening international division, and fraying economic ties slowing growth and pressing down life span and health in wide swaths of the human population. This would be a world of narrower horizons, fewer choices, and less interaction among peoples and cultures. This would be a world in a downward spiral with diminished capacity for addressing the very global problems threatening us all.

. . . Those who think my crystal ball excessively pessimistic should think back to a not-so-distant history. In 1914 things began to go disastrously wrong and ultimately on a global scale. A world at peace amidst a rising tide of wealth stumbled into a thirty-year military and economic catastrophe. By 1945 millions upon millions lay dead, some of the world’s leading cities were rubble, starvation widespread, hope shattered. The road from that hellish period to our own relatively blessed state was long and by no means inevitable. Roads can carry traffic both ways – what has been accomplished can be lost.